Tottenham have developed a highly successful blueprint for facing Pep Guardiola’s City, which has established them as an irritating bogey team for the champions.
City have lost five of the clubs’ last seven meetings in the top flight — and memorably went down over two legs in the 2018-19 Champions League quarter-final — and in the last four-and-a-half years five different coaches — Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo, Antonio Conte and Cristian Stellini — have spearheaded Spurs wins over Guardiola’s sides.
With the notable exception of Pochettino’s team, all of Spurs’s recent wins over City have come with a remarkably similar approach: they have allowed Guardiola’s pass-masters to control possession, defended deep and in numbers and counter-attacked at speed, usually through Harry Kane and Heung-min Son.
Mourinho was in charge for the 2-0 home wins over City in February and November of 2020, while Nuno oversaw the 1-0 victory in north London on the opening day of the 2021-22 season, when Spurs were without Kane.
Conte was head coach for the 3-2 win at the Etihad in February 2022 and Stellini was in the dugout (albeit covering for Conte and not in sole charge at that point) for the clubs' last meeting, Spurs’s 1-0 home win in February, when Kane became the club’s all-time leading scorer.
In each one of those games, Spurs had between 29 and 35 per cent possession and fewer shots than City — in some cases by an enormous margin.
They usually rode their luck defensively, but with Kane, now at Bayern Munich, as a brilliant launchpad for attacks and Son deadly in transition, Spurs’s contain-and-counter tactics repeatedly proved effective — to the point where they genuinely appear to be in Guardiola’s head.
Asked last season what City had left to achieve after winning an historic treble, he replied: “Score a goal against Spurs away. It’s why I stay, I want to beat Spurs away.” He was, perhaps, only half-joking.
At least for Guardiola’s sake, Sunday’s game is in Manchester, where Spurs’s approach has been slightly less successful, even if they won there under Conte and led 2-0 at half-time last season, only to collapse to a 4-2 defeat.
Now it is Postecoglou’s turn to face Guardiola, and he will demand his players forget everything they know about beating City and adopt, in essence, the polar opposite tactical approach to his successful predecessors.
Rather than sit off City, Postecoglou’s Spurs will press them high; rather than defend deep, they will adopt with a high line; rather than play in transition, Spurs will aim to dominate the ball.
Postecoglou’s “non-negotiables” are just that, and he will not change his tactics for any opponent, even one as fearsome as the treble winners and with the weight of Spurs’s recent history against City hanging over him.
"Whatever the obvious risks of attacking City, Postecoglou is convinced that sticking with his tactics in every circumstance is key to long-term success"
Whatever the obvious risks of attacking City, Postecoglou is convinced that sticking with his tactics in every circumstance is key to long-term success and that, at this stage of his project, it is more important his players believe in the set-up and understand that he will not compromise to earn results.
Three consecutive defeats, however, have led to questions over the Australian — albeit largely from outside the Spurs bubble — and there will be even more scrutiny on his tactics if they are taught a lesson in progressive football on Sunday afternoon.
That said, even considering their current downturn, the game is still something of a free hit for Spurs, given their lengthy list of absentees.
Postecoglou will be without 10 first-team players this weekend and no team in the League, City included, could be expected to cope without so many absentees, particularly when the suspended Cristian Romero, Micky van de Ven, James Maddison and Rodrigo Bentancur are among Spurs’s most influential players.
Yves Bissouma, who served a one-match ban against Aston Villa, is available again, while Pape Sarr could be fit, easing the pressure a little.
If Postecoglou needs any encouragement to stick to his guns at City, even against evidence of Spurs’s previous success in this fixture, he need only look at his opposite number.
There are compelling similarities between the approaches of the two managers, to the point where Postecoglou joked “I’m just copying Pep, mate” when asked about his tactics in September, and Guardiola faced his own critics in his first season at City. Guardiola never wavered in his belief in his brand of football, and the rest is history.
Everything suggests Postecoglou will be similarly unflinching, even if Spurs’s new approach to facing City does not initially prove as successful as the old one.